Offensive coordinators love talking about “pace” or “tempo.” It wears defenses down, gets them all gassed and confused and allows the offense to fit a whole bunch of plays into a game. Which means more opportunities to bust some big ones.
But what’s the best way to measure tempo? If a team runs 90 plays in a game, it’s really booking it, right? Well, not exactly, if it ran those 90 plays in, say, 40 minutes of possession. That’s a rather pedestrian 2.25 plays per minute.
OK, so let’s say that team ran 90 plays in 25 minutes. I mean that’s like jet speed, 3.6 plays per minute. It had to be gashing the defense all day long, right? Well, not exactly.
Let’s say that team threw 50 passes against 40 runs and only connected on 45 percent of those passes. You know, like Missouri did against West Virginia on Saturday. Then the defense is only dealing with, at most, 62 live-ball plays in which it had to line up, stop the play, then get back to the line and stop another one in 25 minutes, or 2.48 per. Not as fast.
That gets to the heart of “efficiency,” which Bill Connelly’s beautiful mind delved into tactfully earlier this week.
Missouri leads the nation with 100 plays per game after Saturday’s opener. But, just because the Tigers are going “fast,” does that necessarily mean that they’ll put up gaudy offensive numbers this year?
Let’s look at the company they’d be keeping.
We took the 37 teams that averaged at least 80 plays a game in a season from 2012-15 and saw what correlated best to yards per game and yards per play: plays per game, plays per minute, something we made up called “live ball plays per minute” (plays minus incompletions, divided by plays) and another thing we made up called “live-ball play percentage” (live-ball plays over total plays).
(A note: we chose 2012-15 because that, statistically, is the beginning of the speedball revolution. In those four years, no fewer than seven teams averaged 80 plays a game each year. From 2001-11, no more than three teams did in any given year).
So, based on that data set of 37, we found expected values for yards per game and yards per play using those four variables listed above and saw which one had the lowest standard deviation from the sea of actual YPG and YPP values.
For both YPG and YPP it was...live-ball plays per minute, which predicted both to a standard deviation of within 9 percent of the actual values.
Indiana averaged 504.3 yards a game last year and our LBPPM equation predicted it to 502.8. It got 15 of 37 to within 5 percent.
Oregon averaged 6.60 yards a game in 2012, and our equation predicted it to 5.57. It got 14 of 37 to within 5 percent.
Long story short: being fast isn’t the best predictor of success in yards per game or yards per play. Being fast while keeping that clock moving is.
You can throw three incomplete passes in 40 seconds and do absolutely nothing. You can throw three incomplete passes among a 9-play drive that takes 2:30, and you’re probably cooking.
How does this apply to Missouri? Glad you asked.
We looked at the Tigers’ applicable stat categories going back to the 2001 season (the “P.G.P.,” Post-Gary Pinkel years, if you will), to see how closely any of them predicted YPG and YPP.
The best predictor for YPG was, again, Live-Ball Plays per Minute, though the standard deviation (11.4) means the correlation wasn’t as strong as for the national data set.
The best YPP predictor? Percent of live-ball plays. And, at a standard deviation of 7.97, it’s a stronger correlation than the national data set.
Live-ball play percentage got seven of 16 years within 5 percent when it comes to yards per play. It predicted both 2010 and 2011 to within 1 percent.
If we’re looking at pure plays per game (100.0), plays per minute (3.88) and even live-ball plays per minute (2.75), Missouri’s performance against West Virginia puts it well ahead of the other 15 years.
That live-ball play percentage (71.0), though, is well behind.
And if you would kindly check the chart, you’ll see that Missouri’s worst full seasons in terms of yards per game and play (2015 and 2001) are also the Tigers’ worst in terms of live-ball play percentage.
Missouri can, indeed, keep the goal in mind of going fast. It also has to be mindful of efficiency, though, if it wants to separate itself.